Caroline Selle: Mandela’s legacy: A path to climate justice

• December 9, 2013
mandela's legacy

Monument to Nelson Mandela in KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa. Creative Commons: Lawrence OP, 2013

As the world mourns Nelson Mandela, his legacy is seen in social justice movements around the world. His work to end apartheid is in the spotlight, as it should be, and with it the tactic of divestment. Mandela’s compassion for his opposition is also being highlighted, as is his refusal to back down in the face of impossible odds.

Less frequently mentioned, but no less salient, is his commitment to climate justice. In his later years, Mandela recognized climate change as an enormous threat not only to human health but to justice around the world.

Mandela’s climate legacy will live on in a great many ways. His organization, The Elders, makes climate justice one of its top priorities. “Recognising the disproportionate impact of climate change on the poorest and most vulnerable, The Elders support transformative leadership to deliver a sustainable, secure, and more equitable world,” the website reads.

However, Mandela’s legacy is not merely institutional. The tactic of divestment and the practices of compassion and conversation that helped to end apartheid are now propelling the climate movement forward.

Apartheid ended after negotiations and elections, but first came the worldwide divestment campaign. In the 1970s and ‘80s, groups removed their funds from any companies that did business in South Africa in response to the apartheid regime. The divestment was successful: targeted companies’ stock prices were lowered and public awareness of the regimes’ practices grew. But though the divestment campaign grew to prominence during the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was first advocated in the 1960s. And it was in November 1962 that the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 1761, which established the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid and called for imposing sanctions on South Africa. Most Western nations boycotted the Committee as a result.

Contained mostly to college campuses at the moment, divestment is a quietly powerful tactic for disempowering fossil fuels. Schools, cities, religious institutions, and foundations are all committing to removing their investments from the companies 350.org says are wrecking the climate. According to gofossilfree.org, The College of the Atlantic, Green Mountain College, and Hampshire College are just some of the schools committed to pursuing fossil fuel divestment. Listed cities include Seattle, WA, San Francisco, CA, Portland, OR, and Amherst, MA. Religious institutions include the United Church of Christ – National, and many chapters of Unitarian Universalists.

Though Mandela’s most famous tactic may have been divestment, his most powerful legacy is that of reconciliation and compassion. In this regard, the climate movement has its hiccups. Environmental justice groups accuse the Big Greens of transactionalism and failure to acknowledge the real plights of people. Coal miners fear the end of coal means the end of jobs.

But true to Mandela, some are working towards reconciling differences – creating green jobs and skills training, implementing environmental justice task forces, and even making justice a primary focus of organizations. The NAACP, for example, has a Climate Justice Initiative. The Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice was founded with climate equity as its mission.

The snail’s pace of progress is frustrating, but it’s worth remembering that Mandela was in prison for 27 years — years in which South Africans and allies around the world continued to build the foundation on which a new South Africa would be built.

The world is a long way from fully removing money from fossil fuel companies, solving climate change and bringing about justice, but, as Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”


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TckTckTck is the online hub for the Global Call for Climate Action. The GCCA represents an unprecedented alliance of more than 400 nonprofit organizations from around the world. Our shared mission is to mobilize civil society and galvanize public support to ensure a safe climate future for people and nature, to promote the low-carbon transition of our economies, and to accelerate the adaptation efforts in communities already affected by climate change.

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